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Has the Age of the Virtual Assistant Arrived?

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Virtual Assistants had been languishing in relative obscurity on Apple’s App Store and Google Play until 2011, when Apple bought Siri and integrated it into its iPhone 4S. Siri was marketed as iPhone’s killer app. The following year, Samsung got the Vlingo Team to make S-Voice for its Samsung Galaxy S III. S-Voice featured the same hands-free control that was provided in Vlingo for Android. S-Voice would respond to the words “Hey Galaxy.” Just this month, Motorola put virtual assistant back front and center of the headlines with its Moto X. The Moto X uses Google Now and also is capable of full hands-free operation. Motorola actually added a dedicated natural language processor to be able to minimize the battery drain of keeping your phone constantly waiting to be activated by the phrase “Hey Google.”

Virtual Assistants allow you to make phone calls, send SMS, update social network status, make appointments, do searches and other smartphone tasks using voice commands rather than by tapping on your smartphone’s display. With three major manufacturers integrating Virtual Assistants in their hardware, I really am starting to wonder whether this is the next step in smartphone evolution. I have tried about a dozen different virtual assistants on three different platforms and have never found them too useful. One nice function is the ability to make calls. This works most of the time, and the rest of the time, it is unable to identify the contact I am trying to call. Another one is sending SMS. It is cool for sending short SMS, but to make sure it gets everything right, most virtual assistants will go through a long process of reading and confirming the message you want to send. Oftentimes it does not get the message correctly, so I have to cancel it and start over.

From my standpoint, it really does not save time, and is only useful when you cannot use your hands, like when you are driving. One good thing about using a virtual assistant when you are driving is that you are in a private space. This means you do not have to worry about the people around you hearing the commands you are giving and the responses of the virtual assistant to those commands. I still do find it distracting having to listen to what my virtual assistant is telling me while driving. So my habit has been if I need to call or SMS while driving, I simply find a nice safe place to park my car. For receiving calls, I just rely on my Bluetooth headset (…which I only use in the car. Defensive about that, but it is a long story). But hey, I don’t even listen to music in the car to maximize my situational awareness.

I have a lot of friends that own iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S III and S 4 phones. None really use Siri, except as a party gag. Some Galaxy owners did not even know S-Voice existed. Now Motorola has bet the farm on its virtual assistant optimized phone. The Moto X has a couple of nice traits, but the main feature which makes it stand out is the dedicated hardware for always-on voice recognition. I still have to confirm, but I am 99% sure that listening to the words “Hey Google” is done offline, so that while it is always listening, it is actively transmitting data to the internet until it hears the magic phrase. I do not want this discussion to be about security implications.

As I previously stated, I find no real productive use for these virtual assistants. I had voice dialing since 2007. I keep on testing each virtual assistant with a new phone or app, and I find it so frustrating that I would rather use speed dial. Audio does have its place. Audio books or document voice readers, while not a virtual assistant is one example where voice feedback is useful. I think there may be a future with task-specific virtual assistants like integrating voice-activated television remote controls on your phone. At the same time, I think the web really is visual. The popularity of Instagram is one example. Facebook and Google+ have gone through great lengths to make the visual experience more pleasing. I could have an app read my Twitter feed to me, but I would not see all the pictures posted.

The more we move from the visual to the audio, this pretty much destroys the advertising model that keeps a lot of our online services alive. Ironically, Google would be the biggest loser in this regard and will have to change its advertising strategies. Instead of a banner, the day will come when advertisements will be delivered to us in audio format– A notice that there is a sale in the store you are about to walk past, or an email containing an advertisement that your virtual assistant will read to you. Those annoying SMS promotions which we get from who knows where, rather than being summarily dismissed, will be read to us in full by our always-on virtual assistants.

Mobile phones have invaded our lives enough. Whereas a long drive to a meeting used to be a time to relax and think, people now expect us to be available 24/7 even for the most trivial things. And we do have to accommodate. Putting our phone in flight mode means missing even emergency calls. Somehow, I do miss the pre-SMS days when making a cellular phone call cost a lot.  People would have to think if it was worth their money to make a call.

In short, me, I am drawing the line. I do not want to see this kind of technology succeeding.  No need to boycott products that have it. The Moto X has some really nice hardware, and I do use a lot of Google services, from Email to Docs. But my advice is, if you want to keep Google stuck on your mobile phone’s screen and out of your ears, turn off the virtual assistant when you buy your next shiny new smartphone.

Is the age of the virtual assistant coming? I hope not. I cringe at the thought.

Image Credit: Google